Igor Kokoskov was set up to be the fall man for the 2018-19 Phoenix Suns once the person who hired him, Ryan McDonough, was fired nine days before the regular season opener from his GM position. And maybe “fall man” is being too generous on my end.
The Suns did Kokoskov dirty.
With one of the youngest rosters in the league, which only increased as the season waned, what was he supposed to do to keep his job? The more I think about it, the more I believe he simply wasn’t James Jones’ guy from the beginning as a dead coach walking of sorts.
It makes sense for a new GM to want to hire his own coach to follow his own vision. However, the optics of this situation simply aren’t great. Why let Kokoskov twist in the wind for months, even let him speak to the local media at the end of season availability about his job security?
Arizona Sports’ John Gamabadoro initially reported the original smoke of Kokoskov’s job security in late February amidst a franchise-worst 17-game losing streak. Once Gambadoro’s news released, though, Phoenix went on to their best stretch of the season winning six of 10 against the likes of Golden State and Milwaukee.
Those winning ways didn’t last long as the injuries started piling up featuring Tyler Johnson, Kelly Oubre Jr., Deandre Ayton and Devin Booker. All of the positive momentum disappeared when lineups featuring Jimmer Fredette, Ray Spalding and Dragan Bender were being trotted out regularly to end the 19-win campaign.
At the end of season media availability, no player really went out of there way to praise Kokoskov. Johnson, Booker and Oubre all mentioned to us how Kokoskov was a bright basketball mind, but didn’t really elaborate outside of that. And I will admit you could tell it took awhile for Kokoskov to win over the locker room, if it ever did happen in the first place.
With an 82-game sample size as a head coach on a roster filled with inexperienced players and missing parts, was he really expected to make some sort of magical playoff push? That was never going to happen, and it’s very disappointing how it took Jones and Co. two weeks after the regular season to decide on this route.
For Kokoskov’s sake, we will unfortunately never know if he was actually a good NBA head coach or not. Yes, his rotations were sometimes messy but there were actual results being produced from a player development perspective, which was mentioned as the primary reason he was originally hired.
Shame on the Suns for actually expecting Kokoskov to be some sort of miracle worker when examples of that just don’t exist. If Kokoskov simply wasn’t who they wanted to lead this team into the future, he should’ve never been hired in the first place. What’s interesting enough is how Jones mentioned after his hire how he played a role in bringing him to Phoenix.
What made Jones sour on a hire he seemed rather comfortable with 11 months ago? Hopefully we get those questions answered when Jones speaks to the local media Wednesday morning, ironically not joined by new Senior VP of Basketball Operations Jeff Bower and Owner Robert Sarver.
Expect Kokoskov to land on his feet as a lead assistant, whether it’s back in Utah or elsewhere, but this experience will likely never allow him the chance to try this again. And who could blame Kokoskov if he really wasn’t interested after this go-around in the Valley.
During Sarver’s ownership, the Suns have cycled through nine head coaches. Seven in the last eight years. Now going on five straight years with a new voice pegged to lead a young group forward out of the league’s abyss.
What’s also incredible is that the Suns will be paying two general managers and two head coaches throughout the duration of the 2019-20 season. McDonough’s extension would’ve ended in 2020, while Kokoskov will continue to receive checks from Phoenix for two more years. If that doesn’t show you the levels the organization has sunk to, I don’t know what will.
Coaches are supposed to lay down their foundation and grow with the team. Under Sarver’s ownership, that aspect simply doesn’t exist. If you don’t produce immediate results, you are placed on the hot seat. And if that seat continues to get warmer, you will eventually be kicked to the curb. It’s happened now far too often for the organization to gain any sort of pity.
Quite frankly, it’s embarrassing.
The Suns’ rebuild might stagnate before it even gets off the ground when you see all the constant turnover. For example, Josh Jackson is about to have his fourth head coach in 2.5 years.
Whoever steps in to take Kokoskov’s spot, good luck. You’re going to need it.
Trying to imagine why the Suns moved on from Kokoskov after only one season leads us to the red-hot Monty Williams rumors. Williams — the former Hornets/Pelicans coach who is one of the most respected names in the industry — is the top candidate to replace Kokoskov, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.
A league source also told Bright Side of the Sun that Phoenix had been in contact with Williams’ representatives prior to officially firing Kokoskov. He is the name they have long coveted, and there’s connections tying Williams directly to Jones and Bower. Jones played one year in Portland when Williams was an assistant, while Bower hired Williams to be the Hornets’ head coach at the end of the Chris Paul era.
Going from Kokoskov to Williams or whoever else indicates that the Suns’ newly restricted front office wants their own coach. Jones was 100 percent onboard with hiring Kokoskov with McDonough, but, as we see far too often with this franchise, plans seem to pivot far too often.
Williams has prior history with helping develop the likes of Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis, and his loving personality has been a hit with players around the league. You won’t find one person who says one negative thing about him. If Kokoskov wasn’t able to get buy in from his players, Williams will demand it as he would be the first Suns coach with previous head experience since Alvin Gentry was promoted 11 years ago from being their assistant.
Whether it’s Williams or another name who enters into the Suns coaching cycle, they had better hope stability is a buzzword they hear early and often. The Suns led the NBA in steals and deflections per game the final months of the season, but the coach was still let go after one season.
When stability is absent, it leads to many decisions we’ve seen surrounding the organization the past few years.
Especially for Devin Booker as he enters into his 5-year, $158 million max extension, it’s time to start truly flipping that switch Sarver has alluded to before. Five years for Booker with five coaches.
The past three seasons, Phoenix has caused organizational dysfunction. 22 months ago, McDonough was extended while Jones was brought aboard as his understudy of sorts in his VP role. From there, Watson was fired after three games resulting in a 79-game interim stint from Jay Triano. It gets even more eye-opening when you notice McDonough is walking out the door six months later nine days before their season opener. Then, to put the final nail in the coffin, the coach they just hired less than a year ago was canned.
On the verge of missing the playoffs for a decade straight, it might be time for the Suns to look in the mirror at themselves rather than thinking everything else is the issue. The day has arrived to commit to a true change on all levels of the organization and follow it without burning bridges along the way.